James Cleveland Owens, better known to the world as Jesse, sky-rocketed to fame via the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals while simultaneously tying a world record, setting a world and also three Olympic records. It would be forty-eight years before another track and field Olympian, American Carl Lewis, matched Jesse’s feat.
Even before I become immersed in the running community I was familiar with the name Jesse Owens. I knew he was a runner who had captured Olympic gold, but until I watched “Race” starring Stephan James as Jesse and Jason Sudeikis as his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder, I had no idea what he endured just to make the games.
Jesse’s running career was part of history long before the civil rights movement, so not only did he suffer racism on the local stage, he was a black runner competing in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s regime. As a white woman born long after these events, I cannot begin to fathom the kind of commotion that accompanied Jesse as he fought to simply be allowed to do what he loved, run.
In 1933 attending college was a privilege reserved primarily for upper class white men; for black men, it was practically unheard of, but that didn’t stop Jesse. Despite being a northern state, Ohio was not without it’s share of racism. Jesse faced animosity on the campus of Ohio State, particularly from the football team.
There’s a powerful scene in the movie where the track athletes are all gathered in the locker room after practice. The football players walk through and begin taunting the black runners. Rather than addressing the commotion, the coach looks straight at Jesse, demanding that he focus and keeps talking until eventually all other sounds are silenced and Jesse hears only his coach. That lesson would serve him well later while competing at the Big Ten Championships and the Berlin Olympics.
Since 1936 other Olympic athletes have gone on to win more gold medals than Jesse, he will forever be remembered for achieving what no one before or since has done. “During a time of deep-rooted segregation, he not only discredited Hitler’s master race theory, but also affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.” http://www.jesseowens.com/about
During the movie, two events almost keep him from even making the Olympic team; he is approached by a leader of the NAACP who encourages him to boycott the games as a show of solidarity with the Jews, being oppressed by Hitler and during the trials, he almost fails to qualify for one of his events. How differently might history have been recorded had Jesse missed those games?
This line from movie beautifully defines Jesse’s perspective on silencing the noise, “Out there ain’t no black and white, there’s only fast and slow. Nothing matters not color, not money, not even hate, for those ten seconds you are completely, free.” Powerful words.
Maybe you aren’t running for gold or fighting prejudice, but we all have things in our life we want to accomplish and unless we silence the noise, we will not succeed.
Until Next Time,
Becky J Miller